FULTON — “Look at all these pictures,” Harvey Feldman said, his finger running over a two-page spread in the 1961 Southwest High School yearbook. “Who’s the only one really smiling?”
There, in a series of nearly identical black-and-white photos, are the boys of the varsity football squad, each in a crisp white uniform, each on one knee, each staring down the camera like it was an opposing lineman. All except Feldman, who’s forgotten to wash his uniform and has grass stains running up both legs. He — wiry, with close-cropped hair and prominent ears — is beaming like he’d been picked first in the NFL draft.
Not quite. He was a starting lineman for Southwest, and that was good enough.
“I had reached my goal, baby,” he said, flashing that same grin.
Recently, Feldman has gotten involved with his old high school again in a big way, pledging a $300,000 match of donations to the alumni foundation’s Turn on the Lights campaign. On June 27, he helped break ground on four new light poles that will illuminate Southwest’s athletics field, meaning the Lakers will regularly host night home games this fall for the first time.
When the class of 2013 graduated in early June, Feldman handed out $2,500 scholarships to four student athletes. His scholarship, meant to be an annual award, recognizes the “most-improved” players on the football and boys and girls basketball teams.
“That’s an award I think I would have won my senior year,” he said. “I wanted to give the awards to kids like me, who I could relate to.”
At 70, Feldman is still trim and energetic, still brimming with memories of his high school years. Not forgotten are his football coaches, first Dave Peterson — who also coached two Olympic hockey teams — and then Art Fredrickson, the gruff U.S. Navy veteran who led the varsity squad.
During that first year of football, Feldman would run at the tackling sled during practice and bounce right off. But he kept working. He was a junior and 16 years old, playing for Fredrickson for the first time, when the coach whistled practice to a halt.
“Everything’s quiet,” Feldman recalled. “[Fredrickson] goes, ‘Feldman’ — right in my face — ‘I’d like to play you but I can’t make chicken salad out of manure.’”
It makes Feldman laugh today remembering how angry he got then, how when he went to tackle a teammate in practice he’d imagine creaming his coach. When the next year he returned as a senior, hitting harder than ever, and Fredrickson called him “the best [damn] tackler I’ve got,” it was a victory as sweet as it was hard-won.
“I was not a great athlete; don’t get me wrong,” Feldman said. “Dave nurtured me and made me believe in myself, and I guess Art did, too.”
Feldman went on to the University of Minnesota and then a successful career in the bar business. For 30 years he ran Irv’s on West Broadway Avenue, serving a hard-working, hard-drinking crowd, and was a silent partner in two other bars.
In the spring of 2010, Frederickson died at age 87. Feldman reminisced with a friend about his “beloved football coach,” and was surprised when tears started running down his cheeks.
“Six months later, Southwest was playing for a city championship at Washburn,” he said. “When I played we never could beat Washburn, so even all these years later I wanted to go.”
Southwest lost, just like in the old days, but watching the action under the lights at Washburn with fans from the rival schools filling the stands reminded him of the old Parade Stadium. For decades before it was demolished in 1990, the downtown field hosted one marquee high school game a week and it was, Feldman said, “just magic.”
The quest to bring that magic to Southwest’s home field has raised a few questions. Some neighbors wonder about the increased crowds and traffic that could come with night games, not to mention the glare and noise.
Neighbor Chris Gegax, who lives directly across the street from the field, said he and his wife Heidi were encouraged by a developing dialogue between neighbors and the school. The stadium is generally a good neighbor, they said, and with two grade school-age daughters on track for Southwest, they’re likely to find themselves in the stands someday soon.
Southwest Athletic Director Ryan Lamberty said one of the benefits of finally lighting the field permanently was that a lot more parents would be in the stands from now on. Football games start as early as 3 p.m. in the late fall, when most parents are still at work. Even students struggle to rush over after class.
Southwest graduate Camden Knuckles said he first saw Feldman in the stands at a Lakers basketball game. Basketball had been Knuckles’ focus since middle school, when in 7th grade he dislocated an elbow and left football for several years.
When he joined the football team as a receiver and punt returner his junior year, his play was rusty and he was tentative to make contact. But, like Feldman, he had a coach who inspired him. Knuckles practiced his footwork, learned his routes and this spring accepted one of the four most-improved athlete scholarships. He’ll redshirt for the Morehead State University football team next fall.
Eamon Brodek, who’s headed to Marquette University next fall, also recognized Feldman as a regular at Lakers basketball games. Brodek had to fight his way onto Southwest’s varsity basketball team, finally becoming a starting point guard his senior year, and said his Harvey Feldman Award “shows a lot of hard work finally paying off.”
“I guess Harvey saw something in me,” Brodek said. “It was nice to be noticed.”
Feldman certainly knows the feeling. It’s as crystal clear in his mind as the time he sacked the Roosevelt quarterback under the Parade lights in his senior year.
“It was laughable that I would be a football player at Southwest,” Feldman said. “When I accomplished that goal, I could do anything. Unequivocally. That’s why it’s important we capture these kids through sports.”